Few people, if anyone, track voting data in North Carolina more closely than Michael Bitzer. The Catawba College political scientist posts near daily upates on his Old North State Politics blog, crunching the latest numbers from elections officials across the state. And Bitzer's steady stream of tweets make something very clear: 2020 is shaping up to be very different from previous presidential election years.
"It would be a new day in North Carolina voting," Bitzer said.
If current numbers hold, he said the Tar Heel state could see well over a million absentee-by-mail votes this fall. In 2016, the total number of accepted absentee-by-mail votes was just under 200,000.
Absentee-by-mail ballot requests are already more than 10 times ahead of where they were at this time four years ago. Interest in voting by mail is way up this year due largely to the pandemic and voter fears of contracting COVID-19 at crowded polling places.
That's why Alamance County voter Berkeley Bryant said deciding to vote absentee-by-mail this year was a "no-brainer."
"I didn't feel comfortable going in person," she explained. "I was concerned about my health, concerned about the health of my family and friends that I'm still being around."
But the 26-year-old social media specialist at N.C. State University's College of Natural Resources said she does worry North Carolina won't be able to handle this year's tsunami of absentee-by-mail ballots.
Baseless claims of absentee voter fraud from the White House and cost-cutting measures proposed by Postmaster General — and Trump appointee — Louis Dejoy have stoked fears of undue delays in the timely delivery of absentee ballots.
Dejoy has now said he'll postpone those measures until after Election Day — a statement that came just as state attorneys general, including North Carolina A.G. Josh Stein, have filed lawsuits to block the moves.
However, state and local elections officials do not sound too alarmed at the prospects of the higher-than-normal volume of absentee-by-mail ballots.
At the Union County Board of Elections, absentee ballot coordinator Candace Lopez said they're expecting to see as many as 20,000 absentee-by-mail ballots cast this fall, around four times the number seen in 2016.
But Lopez sounded like she's taking it all in stride, noting they've already doubled the number of staff assigned to processing absentee requests.
"We'll also have a team of individuals that will stuff our packets, which includes the instructions from the state and a 'I voted early' sticker," she added, "because everybody loves those."
In Greene County, Elections Director Trey Cash said he's looking at a 50% budget increase for this election season because of more absentee ballot requests as well as extra safety measures for polling sites.
"We're adding more labels. We're adding more envelopes. We're adding sneeze guards. We're adding cleaning supplies. We're adding more poll workers," he said.
And in Durham, Elections Director Derek Bowens set up a call center because of the flood of ballot requests.
Nonetheless, the message from Bowens and elections officials across the state is simple: voters should send in their requests and their completed ballots as early as possible.
Voters can request absentee ballots by fax, email, online through the state elections board website or their county elections board site, or they can go directly to their local elections board office. County elections boards will start sending requested absentee-by-mail ballots to voters on Sept. 4.
For the first time this year, voters will be able to track their completed absentee ballots through a bar-coded, electronic system.
In an interview with WUNC, North Carolina State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell also urged voters to get their requests and completed ballots in as soon as possible and said the absentee-by-mail ballot packets going out to voters will include instructions that Oct. 27 is the absolute last day voters should mail in completed absentee ballots.
"To get a proper postmark and to get it back to us in time," Brinson Bell she explained further.
Under state law, to be counted, absentee-by-mail ballots must be post-marked by Election Day, which this year is Nov. 3, and received no later than the following Friday, Nov. 6.
Of course, voters are not required to use the postal service to send back their absentee-by-mail ballots. They may drop the completed ballots off in person at their county board of elections office or at a one-stop early voting site. They may also send the ballots back using courier services like FedEx or UPS.
But for some voters, like 46-year-old Gennell Curry, the act of casting a ballot in person is sacred.
The Granville County resident and paralegal was raised by her grandparents who gave her first-hand accounts of the struggle for civil rights and said she hasn't missed a chance to vote in person since she was 18.
"This is my way of saying 'thank you' — is actually going to the polls and actually exercising that right to vote, not just me but my children and, you know, and my children's children," she said.
As for fears of the coronavirus, Curry noted she goes to the grocery store and stays safe by wearing a mask and maintaining proper social distance and said she'll do the same when she goes to the polls this fall.